My fourth X-Alps campaign ended prematurely this year when I eliminated on the sixth morning. I could name as factors my ankle injury, bad luck negotiating airspace technicalities, the disruptions of the pandemic, or the other competitors just being too fast… but in reality the most important factor by far is the flying decisions you make. But that won’t stop me having a grumble about things I’d like to see changed, what has changed since my debut in 2015, and sharing some thoughts and gossip about what this most famous of hike and fly races is really all about.
The concept: There are a lot of hike and fly races nowadays but none capture the imagination like the signature event that Red Bull put their name to. From a public perspective, paragliding is still a fringe sport, understood by only a few; but Red Bull makes it accessible to all. As such it offers the best chance for athletes to aspire to be professional sportspeople. Certainly it has been responsible for a massive increase in popularity of lightweight flying gear, and hike and fly as a sub discipline for a sport with that unique ability to fit a wing inside a backpack. It makes much more sense than trying to fly open distance records in the slowest aircraft, for example. But while a handful of pilots make a living out of promoting the sport, generally the realistically viable ways to make money are by doing tandem flights, running a school or tours, or working as a designer or test pilot. And these all eat into your personal flying time.
The athletes: As an operational meteorologist and trained as an aerospace engineer I can’t say that my work hasn’t helped my flying – but really the most important contribution has been to have lots of time off, through shift work, and some stiff negotiations for unpaid leave. A starting place in the X-Alps is at the organizer’s discretion and with a growing pool of talent to choose from it’s getting harder and harder. Now I am feeling like much more of an amateur than ever before. Teams are exceptionally well organized and supported… and people are taking more risks and liberties to stay competitive.
The crash: My crash in the week before the race start, where I failed to properly assess conditions and hit the ground really hard, was my worst ever paragliding injury. My ankle is still recovering, I lacerated my tongue and had a hoarse voice for days when I kneed myself in the throat. So I was lucky to be able to participate at all. Tricky take offs and landings had to be avoided and I needed to avoid road walking or downhill walking. Normally this is anyway a sensible strategy but these days you have to push hard on the road as well as in the air. With 17.5 hours in the day you can’t rely on a good cross country flight to keep you abreast of the pack. On the fourth day Gavin came from last place to land where I’d been a few hours before, and elected to push on the road into the evening. With 60km of fairly flat and direct road walking to the turn point, and stormy weather, it proved to be a good option to push ahead on foot – but it wasn’t something I could stomach at the time. About 24 hours later, I opted to hike up the hill despite hail five minutes after leaving the valley – I took my chances the rain would end before the 9pm cut off. This didn’t work out and I was stranded on a hill without sufficient time to walk through the night and catch Gavin before elimination.
Turn points: In particular the race format, with multiple turn points, many of them requiring a board to be signed in a valley, breaks up the rhythm of the adventure pilot. What makes the X-Alps so interesting is the route choices and the way different athletes fall behind and catch up again. With relatively closely spaced valley turn points (a function of the sponsors), there is reduced creativity and it’s more of a slog to push through these turn points, hopefully avoiding them in good weather where you sacrifice many potential easy miles in the air. There are always problems with feet and legs, often due to athletes pushing too hard, but in this case the penalties for not covering long miles on the road can be severe. I think the entertainment value of the race suffers when pilots who could have made some amazing moves to catch up are forced to slog it out on the road.
Airspace: The Alps has the infrastructure, the mountains (generally with take offs and landings), the weather, and the right culture and political stability that make this event possible. Even so the airspace is becoming more of an issue over time. There are now large tracts of mountains which are no go zones for take off, landing, or camping, even if not in airspace, and a couple of surface to the moon areas were added close to the first turn point to appease some of the local groups. On the second day I had a strong thermal right next to one of these and with my prologue turn point penalty fresh in my mind I left earlier than I needed to for fear of infringement. Then I made some bad flying decisions which led to me being stuck in the same valley for much of the rest of the day. For both this and the prologue mistake it is ultimately my fault, but having to be so aware of technical and bureaucratic matters is something I don’t have to contend with in a vol biv situation, and something which I can see getting worse in future editions. It will be important to have the route avoid artificial barriers as much as possible but how practical this will be in future editions remains to be seen. It was a feature of the race that many athletes were penalized for airspace, and this is not helping provide entertainment value.
The pandemic: I would not like to make any predictions about whether this will be an issue in future editions, and I’m not sure modelling based on common sense or logic would be much help either. For me I decided to go to Europe anyway, whether X-Alps happened or not, but it was completely impractical for my supporters to make this commitment. To leave Australia you need written permission from the government, and the mandatory expensive two week quarantine is only applicable if you are able to return at all. There was a lot of uncertainty for the organizers as well, and I would not want to trade to be in their position. I am extremely grateful to have been able to cobble together such an amazing support team at last minute notice. There’s always a bit of a learning curve for this role and it’s a pity we were eliminated because I think things were starting to come together nicely. But for sure it was a big commitment for those non-European entrants, and given they don’t have the home advantage their lack of presence is probably a factor on my early elimination.
The weather: It was a tough year in terms of weather, but I don’t think the leaders had a clear advantage this time – I think they just pushed through it faster. Aaron Durogati apparently reported thirteen dangerous incidents in contrast to only one in 2019. Laurie Genovese, who seems to me a confident and competent pilot, scared herself so often that she effectively pulled out. Thomas Friedrich was one of several who pulled out due to injury, perhaps feeling pressure to catch up after a bad start despite coming third in the prologue. Other athletes appeared to go missing in action, or perhaps see a strategic advantage in an airspace penalty? I have said that if I had to choose a year to get eliminated, it would have to be this one. My race effectively finished once I reached the bad weather. Often it was wind related, and to fly in those conditions is a personal choice but one many feel pressured to make.
Cloud flying is another problem. Technically everyone breaks Visual Flight Rules as nobody maintains vertical separation with clouds, but there are certainly different shades of grey. Personally I always want to have a visual reference to the ground, but that doesn’t mean other aircraft can see me. But if you are prepared to take off in complete white out and thermal high into it, and take advantageous glides using electronic maps for navigation, obviously you have a huge advantage (not to just mention avoiding walking down the hill!). This is difficult to police but it definitely goes on. I remember wondering how it was possible that others on live tracking were 1000 metres above me, when I was pretty close to cloud base…
Team flying: In recent editions the organisers have said this is against the spirit of the race, but this is completely ignored by several of those in the race, including some of those in the top ten. Myself I’d be too proud to follow someone else, and Chrigel too good, but for most this is a clear advantage and something where having a well organised and well resourced team puts you furthest ahead of other rivals. In reality many of the supporters are aspirant competitors and they are just as keen to do the race as the athletes. In my opinion you should never be fooled that the X-Alps is a fair competition, and instead treat it as a spectacle. Although the audience follows the rankings closely, what really sets X-Alps apart is the stories and adventure, this is what people will remember. So perhaps the approach is not to ban team flying, but instead for the audience to get behind the underdog and celebrate the suffering and occasional joys of the lost and lucky pilot instead?
Sleep bank: As the standard improves and the course becomes more athletic and less of an adventure, athletes are pressured to push the limits of safety and of physical and mental fatigue. I think the most important rule in terms of safety is the compulsory rest period. Sleep is vital for performance and decision making, and the better people fly, the more entertaining the event. Weather remains the most critical factor for the objective difficulty of the race, so I propose a new rule to make the race both safer and more entertaining. For every day in the race, a two hour block of rest must be taken by each athlete at a time that suits them. If it is not taken on the day, it cumulates into a sleep bank which is to be used before finishing. In this way the athletes can use it to either sleep in or retire to bed early, or to wait out dangerous flying conditions. By having this flexibility, athletes are less inclined to ruin themselves on the road in bad weather, or to push to fly no matter what, and with a lower attrition rate of pilots we can keep them in the game longer which opens up the possibilities for upsets through a longer period of the competition.
Elimination: I used to think that it was a harsh but justifiable way of removing competitors who were sore, tired, or really had no idea what they’d gotten themselves into. But for sure I didn’t like it happening to me. Also think back to my debut in 2015 where I was very close to being eliminated, but recovered to place in the top ten, and produced the most watched video clip of the race as I crossed a high mountain col to take a shortcut and overtake those in the mid-pack. If the purpose of the race is entertainment, then one has to ask if the “battle” of two out of luck competitors running down the road at 6am outweighs the potential comeback story of a few decisive flights. And if the rule is safety related, it is a very blunt hammer indeed. The main reason I have not done other hike and fly events lately is I can’t justify coming all that way for a short event. I also find that rather than go full speed and wear myself out, I feel better each day and thrive on the longer events.
So, would you do it again? I really love the excitement of X-Alps and helping communicate my version of the story to the fans. Supporters make it possible to get so much more out of a day, and in contrast to a vol biv, the race clarifies your objectives. At one stage I thought I’d just keep doing it until I’m old, if they accept me, but on the other hand I see things changing and wondering if it is still my thing. It’s not that I’m too old, the others are too young! Perhaps in the past the X-Alps was like a vol biv with cameras and supporters, now it’s becoming a highly choreographed team event for professionals. In the end it depends on them, me, and if my supporters can talk me into it- let’s see.
Special thanks to Neo and Gin, my donors on givealittle, my supporters Pierre and Nikki and everyone else!